Edward Willett

Excerpt from Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

Prologue

Jarrikk watched the humans crossing the polished black basalt floor of the Great Hall of the Flock as closely as if they were prey, hearing their strange footsteps echoing back from the distant walls. Spidery red columns, studded with perches and platforms, soared to the haze-hidden roof, S’sinn clinging to them in dozens and hundreds. Jarrikk could feel his people’s hatred of the humans beating down like desert sun, hot enough to turn the bitterness in his own hearts into bloodfury were he to allow it.

His crippled left wing ached, ached as it had not since the day of his injury, the pain throbbing in the withered flight muscles in his shoulder and chest and into his left arm. Humans! The plague of his childhood, the cancer that had eaten away the best parts of his life, the poison that now threatened the Commonwealth itself. He had first seen the ugly, flightless, four-limbed creatures twenty years past. War had followed. He would gladly have gone another twenty without seeing them again, but the Translators’ Guild had called him to this duty.

These negotiations had almost not happened at all. Without Full Translation, they would be impossible. S’sinn Translators were few and far-flung among the Seven Races; at this time and this place, he was the only one available, though he had never Translated with humans before.

He wished that could have remained true, but his Oath bound him. He would do his duty.

If war came this time, it would not be his doing.

* * * * *

The giant hall whispered with the rustlings of the S’sinn, here stretching batlike wings, there yawning to display gleaming white fangs or grooming themselves with their ventral arms, but mostly just staring, staring with the blood-red eyes of a thousand nightmares.

The damp chill and near-choking scent of musk pervading the Hall of the Flock might have come from those same dark dreams, Kathryn Bircher thought, shivering in her sleeveless Translator’s uniform. As might the sense of foreboding that gripped her. For a moment, she envied Ambassador Matthews and his aides, cut off from the seething sea of alien emotion she’d begun to feel the moment she stepped out of the shuttle. She knew the other five races of the Commonwealth considered humans and S’sinn primitive, almost barbaric, barely free of their animal pasts. Maybe that was why she could read the aliens so clearly, with very little effort, as clearly as she could read Matthews himself, his cold, passionless soul a spire of ice among the smoldering red fires of the aliens’ hatred.

Or maybe it was because the last time she had been exposed to the raw emotions of the S’sinn, her world had shattered.

She stared ahead at the waiting S’sinn leaders on the small, circular dais, still impossibly far away. The fires of rage in this room could shatter a great deal more than just her world; they could shatter a thousand.

She wondered if anyone could stop them.

* * * * *

Jarrikk focused on the human Translator, sharpening his gaze to hunting mode. He could see every strand of her blonde hair, every tiny imperfection in her pale skin, could even count the stitches that held the triangle-within-a-circle-within-a-square symbol of the Translators’ Guild in place above the curve of her left breast. He raked his eyes over her figure from a distance of fifty spans, memorizing every claw’s-breadth of her within the space of five of her steps. Within that time he knew how she walked, how she breathed, which hand she favored, and where her uniform chafed her. Within minutes, he would know her interior landscape just as perfectly.

He didn’t even notice his claws gouging splinters from the golden wood of the dais.

* * * * *

Feeling that she carried not only her small metal Translator’s case but also the weight of a thousand S’sinn, and the lead ball and chain of her own nightmares, Kathryn stumbled as she mounted the platform. Ambassador Matthews steadied her with a strong hand. It was all she could do to keep from flinching; she could shut out much of the hatred beating down on her from the S’sinn, but touch strengthened empathy a hundredfold, and for that moment of contact, his little candle of hatred burned brighter than all the red eyes of the S’sinn—and he held the fate of negotiations in his hands as much as she did.

She pulled free, took a deep breath, straightened, and looked around. The dais bore a black, glass-topped table and metal chairs for the humans and, for the S’sinn, the padded resting racks called shikks, which to Kathryn looked more like torture devices than comfortable body supports, even for creatures with two wings in addition to the normal complement of arms and legs, and bizarre musculature to match. Matthews and his aides sat at the table; a female S’sinn, already reclining on one of the shikks, watched them in silence. Three others stood just behind her.

Each S’sinn wore only a broad metal collar, marked with a sign. The female on the shikk, on whose red-gold collar a sapphire-studded lightning bolt slashed across a spiral of rubies, would be Akkanndikk, the Supreme Flight Leader. The other two, male and female, would be her Left Wing and Right Wing, her aides and bodyguards. On their copper collars, dull red stones picked out the spiral, minus the lightning bolt. As Matthews sat down, they spread their arms and their wings, revealing the insignia repeated in metallic red on the black, leathery membrane.

The fourth S’sinn also unfolded his arms and wings in greeting, but though his arms moved normally, only his right wing extended fully; the left opened only halfway, and Kathryn glimpsed lurid purple scars zigzagging across it. On his silver collar and on his one good wing gleamed a triangle inside a circle inside a square.

Translator.

Kathryn felt him trying to read her empathically, and blocked frantically, instinctively, though the effort made her head throb. By Guild etiquette that was unforgivably rude, but she couldn’t help it. Facing the S’sinn Translator, all she could think of was the first time she’d seen a S’sinn this close, and the memory threatened to send her screaming from the room.

Yet now she had to get even closer. Now, she had to Link.

* * * * *

As the human blocked his polite probe, Jarrikk growled deep in his throat. How dare she! What it had cost him to make the effort, she could never know . . .

Except she would know, in a moment. His anger dimmed slightly, damped by curiosity. Why block the initial contact when the deeper contact was heartbeats away? Did she fear it as much as he? Was fear the sharp smell that mingled with the humans’ strange salty stench?

Fear or not, the Link could not be avoided. They were sworn to Translate, and that meant they must Link.

It seemed the human recognized that fact as well as he; she stepped to the center of the dais, set her case on the floor, opened it, and took out the injector, a small glass cylinder with an absurdly tiny needle. Is human skin really so thin? Jarrikk wondered. He stepped forward with his own case, removed the much larger metal injector, and without giving himself time to think, drove it into his left arm.

As the warm tingling of the Programming spread through his blood, he looked at the human. She still held her tiny syringe in trembling hands, staring at it as though it might explode, and the sharp scent was strong in the thin film of moisture that had suddenly covered her skin; but then her strange blue eyes came up to meet his gaze, and with a jerky, ungraceful motion, she stabbed the little needle into her arm. The syringe still shook in her hand as she returned it to her case.

Jarrikk reached into his own case, took out the warm silvery cord of the Link, and touched it to the contact patch behind his right ear. He proffered the other end to the human, but she didn’t take it, staring instead at his polished black claws. Behind her the dominant male, the Ambassador, stirred and muttered something, but the human Translator didn’t respond. Jarrikk wondered if even now she would refuse the Link, and felt shame at his half-born hope that she would; or, more accurately, shame at his lack of shame at the thought.

Confusion, he thought. Humans bring nothing but confusion. Confusion and pain.

But he had sworn an Oath, and so he kept the Link extended: and, at last, the human took it, careful not to touch his clawed hand, careful to the last, though it seemed she, too, would uphold her Oath, and all her care would mean nothing momentarily.

For the last time, the human hesitated, staring at her end of the Link. Then the Ambassador cleared his throat and said something, his voice deep and painfully harsh to Jarrikk’s ears.

The human Translator snapped something even harsher and louder in return, and firmly touched the cord to the patch under her own ear.

As human and S’sinn memories, terrors, and anger melded and fused, a great many things became clear.

Chapter One

The wind caressed the leathery membrane of Jarrikk’s wings and tickled the soft hair of his belly like his brood mother used to, to soothe away a nightmare. For a thousand heartbeats he’d been holding his wings imperceptibly angled, spoiling the airflow ever-so-slightly. His chest and shoulder muscles ached with the effort, but he would have shrieked with excitement if it wouldn’t have ruined everything, because Kakkchiss and the others now flew thirty lengths ahead of him and had yet to realize that he lagged behind.

With relief, he drove toward the clouds with powerful strokes. This time he had Kakkchiss. The youngflight leader would never know what hit him!

High enough. Jarrikk focused prey-sight on the sleek black hairs rippling over the powerful muscles in Kakkchiss’s back, folded his wings, and dove.

Kakkchiss flapped on, his attention apparently entirely on the forest below. “You wait,” he said to Llindarr, on his right. “Flight Leader Kitillikk will threaten to rip our wings off when we get back, but she’ll be glad to hear a clear-eyed report of what these aliens are doing, just the same. She’ll probably make us full-fanged Hunters on the spot,isn’t that right, Jarrikk?” And at the last possible instant, Kakkchiss sideslipped smoothly out of Jarrikk’s way. As Jarrikk hurtled through empty air, Kakkchiss’s laughter followed him down.

Claw-rot! Jarrikk snapped his wings open, grabbing air so suddenly he almost tumbled out of control. He righted himself but stayed put a good fifty lengths below Kakkchiss and the other four members of the youngflight, their good-natured abuse raining down on him. “Give it up, Jarrikk! Kakkchiss is Leader to stay!” “Noisiest dive I ever heard!” “Hey, even those aliens could fly better than that!”

That stung, because the strange aliens who had just landed on their planet of Kikks’sarr—their planet, Jarrikk thought, with a familiar sense of outrage that the aliens had dared—flew only with noisy motors and stiff artificial wings. “There’s one now!” Jarrikk shouted suddenly, pointing down, and had the satisfaction of seeing all but Kakkchiss spill air, proving pretty conclusively, Jarrikk thought, that they weren’t nearly as unconcerned as they claimed to be about this flouting of Flight Leader Kitillikk’s command to roost until she decided how and when to contact the aliens.

Not that they planned to contact them, Jarrikk hastily reminded himself; just spy on them.

Kakkchiss hadn’t put a wingtip out of place. He really is good, Jarrikk admitted to himself. An excellent leader. But I could be better.

Still, Kakkchiss caught his eye and clawed the air with his arms in a gesture of respect, and Jarrikk felt a little better. One thing about Kakkchiss, he never begrudged Jarrikk’s attempts to dethrone him, and Jarrikk thought if—no, when—he finally succeeded in catching Kakkchiss off-guard, Kakkchiss would accept it—and then, of course, immediately set about getting the leadership back.

Well, it was no good sulking down here all day. They must still be at least two thousand beats from the aliens’ landing place. Jarrikk strengthened his wingstrokes and started to climb.

Something flashed, blindingly white. Jarrikk blinked. Lightning? Out of a clear sky? “Kakkchiss, did you—” he started, then stopped, gaping.

Kakkchiss’s wings, those smoothly powerful tools that never stumbled in even the roughest air, fluttered uselessly, spasming like they had suddenly developed minds of their own; and then they stopped altogether, and Kakkchiss dropped from the sky.

He plummeted down toward Jarrikk, and for a moment Jarrikk thought he’d been wrong and Kakkchiss intended to take revenge; but as Jarrikk spilled air and swung out of the way, he glimpsed the gaping, blackened hole in Kakkchiss’s chest. Trailing a thin stream of smoke and blood and the smell of burnt meat, the youngflight leader hurtled a thousand lengths into the forest below, striking the treetops with a terrible breaking sound that carried clearly to Jarrikk’s horrified ears.

Jarrikk’s own wings suddenly didn’t want to work any more. He circled down toward the scar in the forest canopy, while above him the other younglings whirled, shouting in confusion. “Jarrikk, what—” Yvenndrill called, then the strange bright flash came again and the call became a choking shriek that dopplered toward Jarrikk.

Jarrikk tore his eyes from the place where Kakkchiss had fallen just in time to see Yvenndrill spinning helplessly down, blood streaming behind him, his agonized shrilling ending abruptly as the sharp splintering branches of the trees broke his fall and his back. His severed wing, still twitching, fluttered down seconds later.

Stunned, almost numb, Jarrikk spiraled down to the trees and clung to a high branch, staring back up at the sky, where Llindarr and little Illissikk, the youngest, still circled in terror and confusion. The light flashed again, and this time Jarrikk saw an energy beam split the air between the two bewildered younglings and realized at last someone was shooting at them. “Dive!” Jarrikk screamed at them, just as they reached the same conclusion and headed for the trees.

Llindarr had only descended a few lengths when the beam flashed again. For a moment Jarrikk thought it had missed, because Llindarr’s dive still seemed in control—but he never pulled up, and the upthrust tip of a forest giant impaled him.

Illissikk almost made it: might have made it, if he hadn’t tried, at the last minute, to pull up low over the forest and join Jarrikk. The beam flashed one last time, and Illissikk’s headless body slammed into the clearing below Jarrikk’s perch so hard it shook the tree he clung to. A thin pattern of deep scarlet drops spattered the dark brown fur of his chest.

Jarrikk wanted to shriek himself, then, wanted to throw himself in blind panic into the sky, but fought down the instinctive urge to flee with reason—and rage. If he left cover, he would die, too, cut in two by the beam, and the Flight Leader might never know what had happened. But if he stayed, he would see the hunters who had used this horrible weapon come collect their “trophies.” And then he could tell the Flight Leader with absolute conviction what he already knew in his hearts: that the strange aliens who had landed on their planet were bloody-handed murderers. And then it will be the S’sinn’s turn to Hunt!

And so he waited, and watched, a hundred heartbeats, and a hundred more, and a thousand after that, absolutely still, absolutely silent, until at last, as he had known they must, the murderers emerged.

There were three of them, hideous, near-hairless four-limbed monsters, like wingless, bald S’sinn. Two were much larger than the other, whose face had the unformed look of a youngling. They wore brightly colored coverings like the S’sinn sometimes wore on holy days, and both carried black, evil-looking tubes with knobby handles: the murder weapons, Jarrikk thought. It was all he could do to keep from diving on them then and there and tearing out their ugly throats.

The youngling seemed agitated, pulling on the upper limb of one of the adults, his voice shrill and painfully loud, but the adult pushed him away and said something in a deeper, harsher voice.

As the youngling alien watched with wide eyes, the adults knelt beside Illissikk’s corpse. Then—Jarrikk’s claws dug deep into the branch—one of them drew out a glittering knife and began cutting at the dead youngling, skinning him as though he were a jarrbukk!

Worse followed. One of the large aliens went into the forest and emerged moments later carrying something wrapped in giant leaves. With a flourish, he swept them aside, revealing Illissikk’s head. A branch or rock had ripped out his left eye, but his right remained, wide with his final terror.

The aliens seemed to take forever about their grisly business, but Jarrikk held down his impatience with the same cold calculation he had already applied to his revenge. There would be revenge, and soon enough, but first he must bear the tale back to the colony. First, Flight Leader Kitillikk must know. And then—

—then it would be the aliens’ turn to feel the cut of knives and beams in their hairless, pale skins.

At last the monsters finished, and disappeared into the forest again, leaving behind a pile of bloody meat indistinguishable from any dead beast. Illissikk had vanished as if he’d never existed, reduced to less than nothing by the aliens’ cold knives. They had moved on, no doubt to do the same to Kakkchiss and the others; and now at last Jarrikk moved, too, unfurling stiff wings and sweeping silently away into the gathering twilight, low to the treetops, where he knew he would be all but invisible.

He would not allow himself grief; he clung to his need to report to the Flight Leader as he might have clung to a slim green branch in a thunderstorm, refusing room to the other black thoughts that tried to shoulder in to share it. Thirst and hunger soon joined the throng, but he refused them a place to land as well. Cold rage and the hope of hot revenge were all he needed to sustain himself this day.

They’d been a half-day’s flight from the colony when the aliens attacked; deep night’s bitterly cold black wings covered the world when Jarrikk, with ever-slower wingbeats, finally began flapping wearily up toward the high mountain caves into which the S’sinn had withdrawn with the coming of the aliens. They had abandoned their airy tree-top structures with a prudence Jarrikk had thought foolish at the time. No longer. A dark shape slashed down to meet him, briefly silhouetted against the star-lit glimmer of snow-capped peaks before swinging into position wingtip-to-wingtip on his right. “Jarrikk?”

“Ukkarr,” Jarrikk rasped, with barely enough breath to talk. “Must see—Flight Leader.”

“So you shall, since the Flight Leader left standing orders to bring you younglings before her the instant you returned. Where are the others?”

“Dead.”

Ukkarr’s steady wingbeats stuttered. “Dead? How—”

Jarrikk concentrated on keeping his own wings beating. His story was for the Flight Leader first, not for her lieutenant. Just a few more beats . . .

Ukkarr didn’t ask again. Silent, he climbed with Jarrikk, guiding him away from the cave complex’s main entrance to a smaller, isolated cavern higher up the slope. “Wait here,” Ukkarr commanded, and plunged back into the night.

Wings still at last, Jarrikk slumped in the cold dark, chest and back ablaze with pain. He pressed the backs of his hands hard against his eyes, then slowly massaged his wing muscles. Thank the Hunter of Worlds that Ukkarr had thought to bring him here first. He couldn’t face their brood mother—not yet. What if she had seen him and asked about the others? He couldn’t lie to her. And the bloodparents . . .

Alone, no longer able to concentrate solely on the act of flying, the magnitude of what had happened threatened to overwhelm him. He folded his wings flat against his back and crouched on the cold stone floor. Wind whispered across the opening to the cavern, a soft, keening sound like a youngling just taken from its bloodmother, before the brood mother came to nurse and comfort it: but this night, Jarrikk knew, no comfort would come at all.

* * * * *

Flight Leader Kitillikk rested on a shikk outside her dwelling caves, overlooking the large central chamber that had served as their Flock Hall since the arrival of the aliens on Kikks’sarr drove them underground. Blood-red and smoky from a thousand torches and fires, it seemed a primeval place, like the legendary hot, hollow center of the home world of S’sinndikk, where the Hunter of Worlds was said to dwell when not soaring through the universe on space-black, star-studded wings.

Or so the priest who had just left her had described it, but Kitillikk was of a more prosaic turn of mind. To her, it looked like a prison—a prison they had been forced into by the alien invaders. Her lips drew back in an involuntary snarl. The priest had all but ordered her to attack and drive the aliens back into space—had almost accused her of cowardice. But the priest didn’t have to answer to Supreme Flight Leader Akkanndikk back on S’sinndikk, who had given unequivocal orders: no attack unless attacked. To strike first would contradict the First Principles of the Commonwealth.

Kitillikk had her own opinions about the Commonwealth, opinions she intended to one day make S’sinn policy, when she became Supreme Flight Leader. But achieving that goal meant first succeeding at her current task of leading the colonization of Kikks’sarr, and that meant following orders. No attack unless attacked.

Just give her an excuse, though . . .

Ukkarr soared across the cavern and settled beside her. “Excuse my intrusion, Flight Leader, but you asked to be informed immediately upon the return of the youngflight that sneaked away to spy on the aliens.”

The youngflight that thought it had sneaked away. Kitillikk had known all about the younglings’ “secret mission”—she’d have had Ukkarr’s head if she hadn’t—but had chosen to let them go. She could use whatever information they brought back, however garbled the report. “They’re back, then.”

“Only one of them, Flight Leader. Jarrikk. He says the others are dead.”

Kitillikk turned and stared at him, then grinned savagely, showing all her teeth. “At last!”

Ukkarr led her to the cave where he had wisely stashed the youngling out of sight. Jarrikk slumped motionless inside, so that for a moment she thought him dead, too; but he jerked up when they entered, and unfurled his wings in salute. Kitillikk motioned him to relax. He folded his wings, but every other muscle in his sleek young body remained tense.

Ukkarr drew a lightstick out of the Hunter’s pouch he always carried and cracked it against the floor. A cold blue light filled the cave and illuminated the snowflakes beginning to fall outside its mouth. “Tell me what happened, Jarrikk,” Kitillikk said.

The youngling told her, his voice high and strained, but admirably under control, considering what had happened. She remembered her own youngflight; they had lived for each other, would have died for each other. Had she lost her sisters as he had lost his brothers . . . he has strength, she thought. Great strength.

When he finished his story, she turned to Ukkarr. The aliens had given her her opportunity; even the Supreme Flight Leader could not fault her now, and her name would echo in every Flight of the S’sinn after this. “Summon and arm the Hunters.”

“Yes, Flight Leader!” Ukkarr spread and snapped his wings in salute, then leaped into the snowy night.

Kitillikk looked back at the youngling. “Can you tell your story again, Jarrikk? Can you tell it to the Hunters?”

“I can. I will.”

“Then come with me.”

A thousand beats later, she stood overlooking the Flock Hall once more, Jarrikk beside her. More than a hundred Hunters now filled the red-lit space, clinging to every possible roost, and this night the arms they bore weren’t the knives and spears and bows they used on game, but slim black S’sinn-high rods: firelances. The weapons of war, not the hunt. “Tell them,” Kitillikk ordered Jarrikk.

He repeated his story, his voice going hoarse by the end of it, and her hearts beat faster at the shrieking roar that answered his tale. Her claws gouged the stone beneath her feet. An alien flung from her roost into the cavern at that moment would not have reached the floor before being torn to bloody shreds. She wished she had one to try it with. “We waited, and hid, to see what kind of creatures these are,” she cried to the Hunters. “Now we know—they are murderers, savages, child-killers! Kikks’sarr is ours! Let us take it back!”

The second, greater roar of the Hunters filled her with the wild, fiery elation she felt only when fighting or mating. She spread her wings and arms again for silence. “We know where they camp! We can be there by dawn. By the time the sun sets again, let there be no aliens left alive on our planet!”

This time the roar went on and on as the Hunters rose and swirled around and around the Flock Hall, then swooped out through the short tunnel leading to the surface and burst into the snow-filled sky. Kitillikk spread her wings to follow; but the youngling Jarrikk touched her wing and said, “Let me go with you!”

Annoyed, anxious to join the flight, Kitillikk snapped, “You are not a Hunter,” and spread her wings again.

But the youngling didn’t withdraw. “They were my brothers. They were my flightmates.” His voice grew hard and desperate. “I want—I have to see the creatures who killed them die. I have to.”

Admirable. Kitillikk considered. “I cannot arm you.”

“I know.”

“It is a long flight. One you have already made twice.”

“I know.”

“We cannot wait for you.”

“You won’t have to.”

He’s tough, Kitillikk thought. Or thinks he is. Good. “Very well. But you are not to take part in the attack. You will only watch. Understood?”

“Understood!” With his own shrill shriek of defiance and bloodjoy, the youngling spread his wings and flapped away.

Kitillikk flew after him thoughtfully. It would be good to cultivate a young male with such loyalty and fire. A personal bodyguard and aide of unquestioned loyalty—all Flight Leaders needed such. The Supreme Flight Leader had two, black as night, the Left Wing and the Right Wing. Kitillikk had Ukkarr, of course, but a second would not go amiss. A fine-looking, strong young male.

She grinned as she flew after Jarrikk. Oh, yes, he had to be male.

* * * * *

Jarrikk hurled himself into the night on wings made strong by his thirst for revenge: but that thirst could only take him so far. Within a thousand beats his wings felt like lead and his lungs as full of fire as his blood had been, except this fire slowed him as much as the other had filled him with energy. He began to lag behind the Hunters. No one waited; he didn’t expect them to. The strong owed it to themselves and to the Flock to fly as hard and fast as they could. The weak must keep up the best they could, or silently turn back. Fly or die, the Hunters said. Fly or die.

Jarrikk kept flying.

When dawn broke, Jarrikk saw the alien camp ahead of him, marked by the glittering silver egg-shape of their ship, surprisingly small compared to the huge black sphere that had brought the S’sinn to Kikks’sarr. A half-dozen tendrils of smoke twisted lazily skyward in the still morning air, proof that at least some of the aliens were watchful. Jarrikk dropped to treetop level, then below, swooping through green-pillared corridors with his wingtips brushing leaves. He looked for Hunters with every beat, but saw and heard nothing—right up to the moment when something swatted him from behind and sent him tumbling ungracefully to the ground. “Find a roost and stay there!” Ukkarr growled, then somehow disappeared into the forest again.

More cautiously, Jarrikk worked his way from tree to tree until he had a clear view of the camp, which consisted of two prefabricated plastic shelters, a dozen brightly-colored tents—and a drying rack on which were stretched at least twenty pelts of various animals.

Three of those pelts Jarrikk recognized very well indeed. He gripped the branch so tightly he felt it split in his claws.

And then, with no audible signal at all, the Hunters dropped from the trees.

Black as night against the bright green, blue and yellow tents, they swept in a hundred-strong flock across the camp and back, firelances lacing the ground below with blood-red beams. Tents blossomed into orange flame that brought aliens naked and screaming into the light, hair ablaze, skin blackened, only to be cut in two by the next wave of Hunters. A half-dozen aliens close to the ship made it inside, including, Jarrikk saw with fury, the small one he had seen with the adults who killed his brothers, but others had time for only one startled look, time to open their mouths wide, before the beams found them and sliced them apart.

Jarrikk saw one of the two aliens who had killed his brothers running for the illusory safety of the prefabricated buildings, before beams set the buildings alight even more spectacularly than the tents. He half-unfurled his wings, prey-sight focused on the base of the male’s stubby neck, ready to fly after him himself, promise or no promise, when a beam slashed at the alien’s legs and he went down, blood spurting from half-cauterized stumps that ended where his knees had been. The alien tried to crawl away, but the next beam touched his head, which exploded into red steam and bits of charred flesh and bone. His torso bizarrely crawled another half-length on its own before falling forward, limbs twitching once or twice and finally lying still. Jarrikk’s lip curled in an involuntarily snarl. He only wished he’d fired the lance himself.

In two passes, the Hunters utterly destroyed the camp and every alien in it; but with an ear-hurting whine, the silver ship came to life, rising into the air, its lifters sending the smoke of the burning camp twisting and dancing across the carnage. One Hunter, more brave than wise, dove toward the ship, beam reaching out to caress the silvery skin, but that alloy was far tougher than the plastic of the prefabs or the fabric of the tents, and the lance didn’t even mark it. Other Hunters followed the first, but suddenly the ship’s whine turned to fang-rattling thunder, white flame exploded underneath it and it rocketed into the sky, vanishing in a matter of seconds. In its fiery wake, the Hunter who had first attacked it fluttered to the ground like a burning leaf.

We won, Jarrikk thought fiercely. It’s over!

Two days later, when the first S’sinn warships arrived and the fortification of Kikks’sarr began, he knew he’d been wrong.

It wasn’t over at all.

It was just beginning.